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Urban studies has traditionally equated modern urbanity with secularity. Following Jennifer Robinson, this was informed by “theoretical maneuvers” that tied the concept of modernity exclusively to western metropolises, leaving the cities of the Global South to a “developmentalism” that cast them as deficient. Moreover, the prevailing urban studies approaches are, as Aihwa Ong argues “overdetermined in their privileging of capitalism as the only mechanism” of urban development.
The Global Prayers project seeks to counter these problematic traditions of urban theory by developing a transdisciplinary conceptual framework for investigating the production of urban religion and religious urbanity. It does so by interpreting these productions as two sides of a continuous process in which the urban and the religious interact: the project follows the thesis that religion is an integral component of the material, social and symbolic production of the urban at all levels.
Global Prayers generates its knowledge through case studies in cities from the global north as well as the south, thus facilitating a global comparative perspective. Carried out in Atlanta, Beirut, Berlin, Istanbul, Jakarta, Lagos, Mexico, Mumbai, Amsterdam and Rio de Janeiro, the studies concentrate on an analysis of the relationship between the political and the religious, and on the spatial practices and place-making of the urban-religious players under study. These case studies have adopted three theoretical and methodological maneuvers:
Urban Religious Practices of “Worlding”
First, Global Prayers investigates the manifestations of urban religion and religious urbanity as practices of worlding. Following Ananya Roy and Aihwa Ong, we understand worlding as heterogeneous spatializing practices anchored in everyday urban life, which collect the elements and practices coming from the world into the city and sent back to the world in an altered form. Here, worlding references religiously motivated aspirations and imaginations seeking to create alternative urban worlds beyond the city as it exists in reality. Worlding addresses an imaginary or real permeation to the level of the global—whether as global circulations of believers and religious media, as practices of modeling “cities of god,” or related to global identities of Ummah, Pentecostalism, or the spread of religious/political/economic power. The phenomena investigated are global in the sense that, within de- and recontextualization processes, they are able “to assimilate themselves to new environments, to code heterogeneous contexts and objects.” These phenomena include many sources circulating in the world, as Aihwa Ong argues, and ignore conventional borders of class, race, city and country.
Assembling Urban Religious Configurations
The second theoretical maneuver adopts the approach of “assemblage urbanism,” with its focus on the multiple, dynamic and contingent constitution of urbanity as it is created through the diverse connections between heterogenic actors, materialities, discourses and imaginations. Assemblage urbanism tries to do justice to the multifaceted configurations between the city and religion without reducing them to homogenizing concepts such as fundamentalism or post-secularism. For AbdouMaliq Simone, assemblage points to the relationship “between the possible…and the prescribed…between code and singularity, expression and content.” Highlighting potentialities always contained in urbanity, beyond what is already established with the focus on doing and performing, facilitates research into the worlding practices in urban religions, which are aimed at creating alternative urban worlds; in this context, urban religion is simultaneously focalized as a “prescriptive regime” and, according to Birgit Meyer, as a “sensational form.” The case studies thus examine the characteristics of specific urban-religious configurations. These are understood as assemblages of material, social, symbolic, and sensuous spaces, processes, practices, and experiences, in which the religious and the urban are interlinked and mutually generate, influence or transform one another.
Experimental Comparison as a Strategy
Finally, to counter a western-centric discourse equating urban modernity with secularity, the case studies employed an actor-centered practice-theoretical perspective. This focuses less on worldviews than on the concrete world of actors and their way of doing things. To achieve this objective, a trans-disciplinary and trans-institutional configuration and a collaborative, progressive production of knowledge in workshops, excursions and diverse cooperation was adopted.
Based on a “comparative consciousness,” rather than concentrating on similarities and differences between cities or religious groups, the focus of this research is on the transformations and linkages of religious practices in relation to specific urban configurations. The case studies do not pursue any formal comparative agenda but, in as far as they investigate urban-religious practices of worlding, point to global forms and processes, and to transnational connections. Hence, Global Prayers is a 1 + 1 + … project, as defined by Jane Jacobs, where “(+) points to multiplicity, and in the direction of emergence and becoming.” The case studies are related to one another so as to generate a multifaceted image in the sense of an assemblage of diverse urban-religious configurations. This is informed by a strategy of comparison, following Colin McFarlane, who argues in favor of including, beyond scholarly knowledge, the “different activist and public knowledges that are important for the production of a more global, more democratic urban studies characterized by diverse urban epistemes and imaginaries.” Hence, comparison is a mode of thought, a strategic tool in configuring a trans-disciplinary, trans-institutional and trans-regional project.
Assembling Urban-Religious Configurations
This research has allowed for three interconnecting theses between the case studies. The first refers to the relationship between religion, culture and space. This case study shows that religion is subject to a process of global individualization, de-territorialization and de-culturation. The new religious communities disengage their respective religions from traditional foundations in a culture or territory and find new cultural, political and economic foundations in the cities. These foundations hybridize the religious in the metropolises. At the global level, the spatial practices, urban development complexes and lifestyles of the new religious players are amongst the most modern representatives of late capitalist urbanity.
A second interconnection between the case studies refers to the relationship between the political and the religious in the city. The case studies do not confirm Mike Davis’ claim that in the cities of the Global South, religious fundamentalist movements with reactionary political positionings simply replace secular, emancipatory movements. Instead, it is possible to identify multilayered forms of interdependence between politics and religion. At times, religious and political mobilization merge; on other occasions religion is instrumentalized for the purpose of political protest—and vice versa. Ultimately, religion is linked to political movements in the classic demands of emancipation and social rights (see also metroZones 2011).
A third interconnection concerns the relationship between religion and urban poverty. Urban studies is dominated by the assumption of a causal connection between the increasing influence of religious movements and urban poverty. This project reveals that religion serves as a means for migrants or the poor to gain greater control over their own living conditions. However, it indicates as well that the urban poor are to be seen less as the victims of religious manipulation strategies than as acting subjects who are capable of integrating the religious, political and economic fields according to their own needs.
All Global Prayers case studies pursue the thesis that the religious currently appears to be expanding in all other (supposedly secular) areas of the permanent production of the urban in such a manner that it is increasingly difficult to say where religion stops and begins. Religion, as Adrian Ivakhiv states, appears as an “unstable signifier,” whose substance melts away at the attempt to explore its geography. The clear and simple borders that modernity assigned to the religious now appear to be unstable and significantly more complex. The borders between secular and sacred, and between religion, politics, the economy, and culture and all of their manifestations in urban space are being negotiated in completely new ways. Overlapping zones, hybrid structures, fragmented and fractal borders—new kinds of urban-religious configurations are being produced and are transforming social urban space on a global level.